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2021 Holiday Bowl preview: UCLA’s defense has been underwhelming, and it has holes to fill

Attrition from COVID-19 has hit this side of the ball hardest for the Bruins.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Cal at UCLA Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the UCLA offense had a fine regular season, the defense was often a liability to be overcome: the Bruins allowed 40 points or more in three of their four losses, and they surrendered a sub-par 5.6 yards per play in Pac-12 games.

A lot of the team’s traditional defensive statistics are middling-or-worse: 71st in total defense, 40th in yards allowed per carry, 41st in yards allowed per pass, 70th in tackles for loss, 68th in sacks.

While they haven’t been terrible on a per-play basis, opponents have completed 62.5% of their passes on UCLA, ranking the defense 89th in that category. They’ve also struggled to get off the field, with opponents converting third downs 44% of the time. That ranks 114th. They’ve done their share of bending this year. And also breaking, now that I think about it.

UCLA has picked off 12 passes, which is a decent number, and the team doesn’t lack for experience in the secondary, either. Safety Quentin Lake and cornerback Jay Shaw, both of them seniors, have three interceptions apiece this year.

But there’s no doubt the Bruins will miss playmaking nickelback Qwuantrezz Knight, who led everybody on the defense with 66 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. Knight started all 12 regular-season games.

So did defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia, who is out with an injury rather than COVID. Ogbonnia had 30 tackles during the regular season, and five of those were for a loss. Additionally, the guy listed as his backup on UCLA’s last depth chart, Tyler Manoa, appears to be another loss to COVID protocols.

UCLA’s defense will have some adjusting to do in order to compensate for the missing talent and depth in those key spots. You can be sure NC State will put their replacements to the test in order to see if they can be exploited throughout the game.

I’m probably overstating the impact of these absences in my head, because the personnel losses haven’t done much to the line on this game. NC State has gone from a one-point favorite to a two-point favorite, according to DraftKings*, so color the sharks unconvinced on this front.

In the ground game, UCLA is giving up 124.5 yards rushing yards on 33 carries per game, or an average of about 3.8 per carry. Not great, not a disaster. Generally they were not so good against the better offenses on the schedule, and they didn’t exactly finish strong down the stretch, either. They surrendered five rushing touchdowns to both Oregon and Utah in late October.

The Bruins are rather bizarrely terrible in third-and-short yardage situations, too. On third downs with 1-3 yards to go, the Bruins have given up 6.7 yards per rush. Opponents ran the ball 40 times in that situation this season, converting the down 31 times. NC State’s defense, by contrast, allowed 0.4 YPC in these situations and opponents converted on four of 16 tries.

I don’t know what the heck is going on there with UCLA, but Bam Knight should be drooling for the opportunities in those spots.

I admit I have seen very little of UCLA this season, but the gist of the numbers overall is that the Bruins are pretty good at keeping things in front of them and avoid giving up a lot of chunk plays, but they’ve not been especially disruptive or otherwise good at getting opponents off schedule. I don’t think NC State is going into the game majorly concerned about the matchup with this defense, though the Pack has underwhelmed at times against some less-than-stellar defenses this year. We’ll see.

*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.